When I was in college I used one of my electives to take Improvisation. I heard they play games the entire class like the classic show Whose Line Is It Anyway, so it sounded like a good idea. Before I knew the basic techniques of improv, it seemed hard and intimidating. How do they do that? People take simple ideas from the audience and turn them into elaborate and hilarious skits with no scripts or preparation.
What I learned was that while practice is important, it doesn’t take innate talent or preparation to be good at improv, it mostly takes a willingness to say the basic phrase “Yes, and…”
For example, if someone in the skit says to you, “Oh my gosh, there’s a spaceship coming to take us away!” You cannot answer “No there isn’t. I don’t see any spaceship.” You also can’t answer with a question, “What? Where? What kind of spaceship?” To do so would be blocking. Blocking is the poison of an improv skit. You simply answer “Yes, and…” So, in this case you might say, “Yes, and let’s quickly gather all the M&Ms we can find to bribe them to keep us alive.” Seems goofy and weird because it is. It’s improv.
In Chiang Mai, I’ve recently joined a small Improv group that meets on Sunday afternoons. It’s been great to play all the improv games and get back in touch with the basic principles of improvisation. The group doubles as an ab workout because we spend the whole 2-3 hours laughing.
It dawned on me as we began doing basic skits practicing the “Yes, and” principle, that there are more broad applications to interpersonal communication in Thailand. As I interact with my Thai colleagues and supervisors I try to use the “Yes, and” technique as much as I can.
Thai colleague: “Ozzie, there’s a group from Korea coming this afternoon. Can you give them a tour of the campus?” Me: “Yes, and I’m happy to give a short presentation about higher education in Thailand or anything else you think would be appropriate.”
Thai colleague: “Ozzie, are you free this weekend to do a workshop on …” Me: “Yes, (and) that sounds awesome! Looking forward to it.”
Thai colleague: “Ozzie, do you want to get lunch?” Me: “Yes, and let’s swing by the coffee shop on the way back.”
If I were to continually block my Thai colleagues with “No” or “I can’t…” or “Sorry, I have to….” it seems to put strain on those relationships. In a society where relationships and good feelings are important values, and in a work environment where spontaneity is common, adopting the classic improv technique of “yes, and” has enabled me to connect with my Thai colleagues, have success in my institution, and keep the joy alive.
After a quick google search, it seems others have applied these basic improv techniques to various aspects of life. For instance, Paul Jackson of the UK gave this Tedx Talk describing how he applies improv techniques like “Yes, and” to organizations. It can also be used to develop creativity and the skill of thinking on one’s feet.
Obviously, it’s important to balance “Yes, and” with one’s personal boundaries. You can’t say yes to everything. Anyone who knows me is probably chuckling now because I’m not sure I internally accept that previous statement. I have a hard time not saying “yes, and” despite an increasingly colorful and full Google Calendar. Alas, no one is perfect and we’re all learning and growing together, right?
At the end of the day, my goal is to grow and learn how to most effectively communicate and function in Thai society. And I think using basic principles of Improv – like saying “yes, and” – is a great place to start.